Adding Classes and Content, Resurgent Libraries Turn a Whisper Into a Roar


The city’s three library systems — the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library — have intensified their efforts to mobilize the public. An exhibit at the New York Public Library’s landmark building on Fifth Avenue last year highlighted Andrew Carnegie’s 1901 gift of $5.2 million to build a network of city libraries, in a pointed reminder that the city had promised, in return, to pay for their operation and upkeep.

In the past two years, more than 250,000 people, including the author Judy Blume and the musician Patti Smith, have signed on to a letter campaign in support of the libraries. Library workers have held story time on the steps of City Hall, and showed up at budget hearings in bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the words: “Keep Investing in Libraries, Keep Investing in New Yorkers.”

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With its satellite libraries, inmates at the Rikers Island jail complex can now read books to their children at outside neighborhood branches, like this one at the Macon Library in Brooklyn.

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Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

The message was heard. In the 2016 fiscal year the libraries received $360 million for operating costs, $33 million more than the year before — the largest increase in recent times. For the 2017 fiscal year, which began on Friday, city financing for the libraries increased slightly to $365 million. But in a more significant victory, city leaders agreed to preserve past increases in future budgets, the difference, say, between getting a one-year bonus or a permanent raise.

City Councilman Andy King, who represents northeast Bronx and is chairman of the Libraries Subcommittee, said previous years of budget cuts had left the libraries on life support. “I’m glad we’re in a financial position to let the blood flow again,” Mr. King, a Democrat, said. “Libraries are a lifeline, which we can’t afford to ever let fall again.”

Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, which has 92 branches in the Bronx, in Manhattan and on Staten Island, said library officials no longer had to worry about plugging budget holes and could instead focus on building services and programs. They have hired 120 more staff members, including 67 librarians for children and young adult literature alone. They have spent $1.1 million on books and materials and expanded seats in early literacy programs for toddlers.

“We’re a mere year into this reinvestment, and the results are immediate: longer hours, more librarians and thousands more seats for education programming,” Mr. Marx said.

Libraries are now open on Saturdays, and in some cases, Sundays, too. At the Queens Library, which has 65 locations, more than 765,000 people visited on Saturdays alone from last November to May. Library officials have hired another 129 staff members and spent more than $2.6 million on new books, including e-books and periodicals.

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Far from becoming irrelevant in the digital age, libraries in New York City and around the nation are thriving.

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Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

“We are energized and serving the needs of the people who come through our doors,” said Dennis M. Walcott, the president of the Queens Library and former schools chancellor, who works from a desk on the main floor of the Central Library in Jamaica so he can take questions and complaints in person.

The Brooklyn Public Library has hired 95 new staff members, two-thirds of whom are librarians, and bought 50,000 more books and other materials. Last year, about 8.7 million people used its 60 libraries, a 3 percent increase from the year before.

Linda Johnson, the president of the Brooklyn Public Library, said 552 satellite libraries had been set up in schools, senior centers and homeless shelters to promote literacy and bring books, technology and other services to those who are unable to visit their branches. Twenty of the satellites are at Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, where inmates can now read books to their children at outside neighborhood branches through video conferencing.

The library contest that drew so many nominations was the idea of Reynold Levy, 71, a former president of Lincoln Center and a lifelong user of libraries.

At the time, budget cuts had forced many branches to eliminate weekend hours. Mr. Levy saw the contest as a way for people to show city leaders how much they valued libraries and to express their appreciation to those who work in them. The contest was sponsored by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and awarded a total of $170,000 to 11 winning libraries, including $20,000 to the Inwood branch.

Mr. Levy, the chairman of Revson’s board of trustees, recalled that his first job, at age 14, was at the Brighton Beach library in Brooklyn, where he borrowed all his books. Four days a week, he would help check out books, collect fines and troll the aisles to make sure all the edges of the books were neatly lined up, climbing on stools to reach the upper shelves. “It was a dream of mine to be wealthy enough to build a library and buy books,” he said.

The recent gains by libraries have delighted Christian Zabriskie, a librarian and executive director of Urban Librarians Unite, an advocacy and education group that organizes an annual “read-in,” in which people take turns reading nonstop for 24 hours, to support the libraries.

“In New York City, there is somebody using library materials every second, every day of the year,” Mr. Zabriskie said. “It’s showing that libraries are the fabric of society.”

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